A Black screen.
Suddenly blue neon dots appear and write themselves to form the words SUPER STAR, as a James Bond like tune builds in the background. Then, the golden letters R, A, J, I, N, I fly onto the screen with a bombastic whoosh; RAJINI. Deva's epic theme is accompanied by alternating shouts of "Hey!" as the word Rajini flashes and its Tamil counterpart appears.
Over the top? A bit ostentatious to have an entire sequence to introduce an actor? Even a little cheesy perhaps? Maybe. But it is all of the above, and one more thing: Epic. As Rajinikanth's title card appears on the silver screen, hairs stand on end, whistles fly, and the theater erupts in an explosion of celebratory screams and adrenaline pumped energy as skin becomes gooseflesh. The title card guarantees a movie bursting with Rajini's electrifying screen presence, his charming antics, powerful punch dialogues, and good old testosterone filled badassery. Something which has slowly but surely seeped out of the actor's more recent ventures. Either that, or we have exaggerated fight sequences, overblown punch dialogues that fall flat, unsupported by the framework of a good screenplay. In the following, I will examine what worked in Rajini's vintage classics and why the "Thalaivar" brand has gone from great, to confusing, to mediocre in the modern era.
The Super Star title card was first introduced by Suresh Krishna in the blockbuster Annamalai in 1992, and what an effect it would continue to have on millions of youngsters for years to come. We witnessed the story of a modest, naive cowherd shepherd transform into a ruthless businessman after being betrayed by his best friend. Not only did the film portray Rajnikanth as vulnerable and innocent, therefore making his transformation into this formidable businessman even more impactful, but it also managed to do so whilst still maintaining the status quo image of the Super Star. It was a movie that combined Rajinikanth's charisma with great storytelling to present a neatly packaged, albeit commercial film that was both emotional and bursting with power.
And then, 4 years later came the atom bomb that was Baasha. A film that elevated Rajini's mass to such a hyperbolic level, that the craze it created is timeless and its legacy holds even today. And, for a film featuring a star who had basically achieved demi-god status at this point, what a brave decision it was for Suresh Krishna to make Rajini's character somewhat gandhian for the whole of the first half. We even see him sacrifice himself for his brother and get beaten brutally by a bunch of goons. Yes, that's right, Rajinikanth actually got beaten up. But the screenplay is clever. It more than hints at the fact that there is more to this man than what meets the eye. Who was he before he became an auto-rickshaw driver? What was he doing in Bombay? Is he the dreaded gangster Baasha? Though we know that it is only a matter of time before Thalaivar explodes, Suresh Krishna stretches this to such an extent, that once he is pushed to the edge, and finally breaks, the result is nothing short of astounding. In fact the writing is so clever and innovative that throughout the whole first half, Suresh Krishna juices out these "mass" scenes that the crowds go crazy over, simply from the hype of the mystery behind this man's past. It is a perfect example of the magic that is produced when great filmmaking is combined with great acting.
After Suresh Krishna, KS Ravikumar also recreated this magic in his films Muthu and Padayappa. In fact the former became such a monumental hit, that it gathered a mass following in Japan, turning out to be one of the highest grossing Indian films to be released in the country. The 90s avatar of Rajini established such a legacy that it's not surprising that there was bound to be a fall, a change in trajectory. And at the turn of the century, with Baba, we saw a slow decline of the once great Thalaivar who would soon be rendered nonsensical in films to come. And what an irony that this would be because of the god-like status he achieved in the 90s, a double-edged sword that was a blessing and a curse.
What the audience saw next was a mixture of Thalaivar films, ranging from bizarre to average to ridiculous. Just remind yourself of problematic and unnecessary "whitewashing" scenes from Shankar's Sivaji. Sometimes this outlandishness kind of worked, like in Enthiran, where we saw Rajini in the avatar of a robot for the first time. But even in Enthiran, though it was something new, it was much less than it could have been, (mainly due to the underwhelming Vasee character and Shankar's simplistic treatment of such a complex theme) and the result was unsatisfying. After 16 years,in 2014, KS Ravikumar joined hands with Super Star once again, a combo that had worked wonders in the past. But, contrary to the expectations, Lingaa was a monstrous misfire. It overdid the "Thalaivar is mass" thing to such an extent that it resulted in something cheesy and laughable. It had a lumbering flashback that moved at a snail's pace, over the top and unrealistic stunt sequences, even for a Rajini film and a cliched antagonist who did nothing but bare his teeth and act as a device to elevate the hero's "mass". It lacked the vision and flair of KS Ravikumar's previous work, and wasn't commercially satisfying either.
The talk had begun of how Rajini was way past his prime, whether he still had it in him anymore, and if he should still strut around with heroines decades younger than him. There are multiple problems here that have led to the fall of the once great Thalaivar. Age? Yes, a prominent factor. How do you expect a 68-year-old man to still carry the same exuberant gusto that he used to carry 20 years ago on screen? And yes, the fact that even at the age of 69 he commands the screen and is still charismatic is saying something, but it's just not the same. This shows especially in the action sequences. Abbas may have said in Padayappa as he witnesses Rajinikanth rip open his shirt and single handedly take on a bunch of goons, "Ungalukku Vaiyasae Aagala sir!" and yet, sadly as much as we would like to believe that he hasn't aged, he has. He may still hang from a bar and kick rowdies on the chest and say "Kabali da!", but one can tell that it's just not the same. The movements don't have the same fluidity that they once had, and it is foolish to expect it as well. So instead, why doesn't he transform and do roles that his age demands? Like Amitabh Bachchan did. But the thing is, Amitabh established himself into a niche of doing character artist roles. He might have been an action hero at his peak, but he slowly fell and had a break from acting for 5 years and when he made his comeback he gradually morphed into character artist roles. You saw him appear as the elderly patriarch in Mohabbatein, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, and Baghban, as well as experiment in darker films like Aks. It's ironic that Rajini will most probably never do what Amitabh did, as most of the hits Rajini delivered as a star were rehashed versions of the angry young man's films.
It's not that Rajinikanth isn't capable. We have seen before on the celluloid how great an actor Rajinikanth can be and even blend into character on screen so well in movies like Mullum Mallarum, Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai and 16 vayathinile. The more pressing question isn't if he can, but if he will be allowed to? You must be wondering what can stop a quasi-demi god from doing what he wants on screen? Alas, the very same thing that made him that demi god in the first place. The fans. Anyone who is well versed in tamil cinema and its intricacies will know that, an Amitabh Bachchan role like the one he did in Piku for example is pretty much near impossible. The audience would most likely reject it and theatres would be in riots over the "de-starifying" of the great Rajinikanth. The thing with stars is that, weirdly after setting off the masses crazy with a couple of blockbusters, there is a mould, a kind of cage they are put in and expected to follow. Anything but that sculpture is rejected. Even if the sculpture is the same every time, it is rejected. It cannot be too alike, and yet it cannot be too different. A very tricky tightrope to walk indeed. You may wonder, if the fans are truly fans, then surely they would want their idol to experiment and step out of his comfort zone once in a while and especially if older, then do roles that would suit that age more. They would surely want the best of their actor rather than his worst.
And yet…and yet…a Rajinikanth movie without goosebump-inducing ultra-swaggery is unimaginable. Even the least Rajinikanth film Kabali, which portrayed an existentialist gangster, had to make the so called commercial compromises and have the standard Rajinisms…to appease fans or fear being rejected. And as a result, what we have is that on one hand, we have directors trying to make their movie, say a pro-workers political tale of tamilians being oppressed, and on the other hand trying to juggle Rajinikanth's superstardom. And that's when we get a tonally discordant, mish-mash of randomness. Almost like a painter who lost his way half way through his painting and decided to throw all the colours on the canvas and ends up making a jumbled mess that doesn't quite hold together. Both Kabali and Kaala are like two souls fighting over a body, an incongruous mixture, where we can separate out the trademark Pa Ranjith scenes, and the commercial Rajinism scenes. The two don't mesh like they are meant to, and weave into the tapestry it could have been.
Or, on the other hand we see directors going the complete opposite direction, as did KS Ravikumar with the ludicrous Lingaa, or AR Murugadoss with his disastrous Darbaar. Going completely overboard in fan service, and in an attempt to be ultra cool and ultra mass and ultra-awesome, it ends up being ultra-meh or ultra-I'm tired of this I'm going to sleep. It also doesn't help that the villains are little more than paper mache and don't create any real conflict or antagonism. Think of the earlier, more successful Rajini films. Annamalai made the closest ally into the foe, Baasha had the towering Raghuvaran as Mark Anthony, Muthu had a scheming Radha Ravi, and Padayappa had the magnificent Ramya Krishnan as Neelambhari.
So what is the solution? There isn't a single solution as such that will immediately solve all the issues, as there rarely is to such things. We cannot create a magic potion and make Thalaivar return to his youth (though if we could, we would). On one hand, the audience could change the way they want to perceive Rajini on screen, and accommodate this transition into more character artist roles. However as already mentioned beforehand, you might as well try to concoct some kind of anti-ageing potion while you're at it, rather than expecting the audience to change their perception of Rajinikanth. So, if the customer sitting at the table is demanding vintage biriyani, biriyani it is that has to be served. But that doesn't necessarily mean the same biriyani has to be served every time in the exact same way. Perhaps the kitchen department could use some creativity, mix things around a little, perhaps a new kind of rice, different vegetables, different spices. After all, the only thing an audience wants from a "Thalaivar padam" is to feel Rajinified with his vintage touch of charm, humour and mass.
That doesn't mean it has to be done in the exact same way every time. It doesn't automatically mean we dispose of cinematic vision, creativity and solid screenwriting. We can still have a good commercial entertaining movie which has well written characters, with uniquely staged action set pieces. The audience just wants mass. Mass doesn't always mean one guy throwing around rowdies like they are plastic cans. Something that would definitely help is giving more importance and credit to screenwriters in the industry, and we will automatically see a rise in the quality of movies made.
Now we don't have to look too far for a modern director who managed to sculpt Rajini in a fresh way and yet still paid homage to the vintage actor of the 90s. In Petta, Karthik Subhraj does an excellent job of weaving in the Super-star with his own world and story. And in true Karthik subbaraj style, we see a scrumptious, morally ambiguous Rajinikanth, who is both charismatic and flippant in a role where he essentially concocts a deceitful scheme to win over the villain. Now, this completely goes against the mainstream mould of what Super Star is meant to be and do. He has always been the honest, righteous, common man who would, in the right, morally truthful way win over the villain and the audience as he has done multiple times in Annamalai, Muthu, Mannan, Uzhaippali, Arunachalam, Padayappa. Even in Baasha, he was representative of the common man, someone who takes up arms to fight another gangster's oppression.
And yet, against all odds..it works in Petta. And why is it that it worked so well in Petta, whereas it dropped and convulsed like a fish out of water in films like Kaala and Kabaali? Because, what Karthik Subhraj did so well that Pa Ranjith did not, was integrate Rajini's Superstardom into the warp and weft of the story's threads. He made Rajini's badassery so central within his own world that it both feeds the story and off of it, that it ultimately enhances the film rather than detracting from it. There is no commercial compromise in that sense, as it works within the film's DNA. There is no "now I've made my movie, time to have a mass scene to service the fans", as the scenes are both mass and work on the story level. A great example is the funeral assassination scene in Petta. We see Rajini the badass superstar mesh beautifully with the irreverent, darkly comic world of Karthik Subbaraj.
This harmony between star and director is why the Rajini films of the 90s work so well. In fact, even before the epic Super Star title card first hit the celluloid, another man did it so well in Thalapathy. We saw a Rajinikanth who had swag and yet was insecure and haunted. The so called mass scenes designed to set audiences on fire were an extension of the character, integral to the story. The man's name was none other than Mani-Ratnam, a visionary who found a way to balance his progressive and unique stories with mainstream taste and liking.
Is it too much to hope for a filmmaker to combine the best aspects of Rajinikanth and mould him into the movie's world in a way that is both fresh, organic and engaging? Perhaps it is. It is a difficult equilibrium to achieve, and if it was that easy it would have been done multiple times already. Petta might not be perfect. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is a missed opportunity to revive a truly testing antagonist for Rajini on screen, the romantic subplots don't feel integral to the film, and the flashback portions are overlong. But it is a step in the right direction, a step I hope will inspire other writers and directors to do the same. And then maybe, just maybe, we can hope for another Rajinikanth venture that does justice to both the actor and the movie.